Stunning orange sunset over harakeke, water and hills
Wellington's south coast, February 2021 (Photo: Ingrid Horrocks)

The climate crisis is seeping into books and making them really, really weird

Ingrid Horrocks is the author of the superb collection of essays Where We Swim. She writes about the swell of new stories in which animals talk and trees dictate narrative – or fall in love – and how her own writing is shifting in response.

This month last year, when we began to hear rumours of lockdowns, it wasn’t flour or toilet paper I panic sourced. Instead I bought books. I bought novels and collections of personal essays, and for the kids a huge stack of books, including the whole Philip Pullman trilogy. The bookshop staff were no longer touching things: they made suggestions with pointer sticks and leaned away from me. 

Once we entered lockdown, I became a picky reader. No books too hard, too scary, too sad. But nothing too light either. I found I wanted books that would get at my heart, making me pay attention to them. I inhaled Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Again (2020), the second of her books about the irritable, and utterly compelling, small-town Olive Kitteridge, this one taking her from her 70s right through to the moment of her death. Perhaps a story of old age lived through to its proper end also had particular appeal in those unknowing months, when anything could still have happened here. 

Through March and April I followed the writing of the disaster itself, which was all over the digital realm, like a roaring, overwhelming, collective novel. A New York friend caught Covid and lay alone in her apartment, listening to sirens, reading eulogies over the phone for friends of hers who had died, and posting real-time updates on Facebook. I participated in an international writers’ project called “How Are You?” in which writers were invited to answer that question, in 300 words. But I wrote almost nothing new. 

Instead, in lockdown – between worrying, looking after kids, and handling a world-of-work gone fully online – I wondered out how my almost-complete non-fiction book could even work. The world was now so changed, the book may as well have been fiction. But one of the things Where We Swim is concerned with is the climate emergency, and as the months passed and we shifted into the next phase of that strange year, this was what I kept coming back to. Despite everything, that other crisis was still with us, even if it was now harder to see. Elizabeth Knox, in her opening address to the New Zealand Festival’s Writers Week in 2020, noted that the current limits of our collective imagination in relation to climate – our failure to imagine how we could do things differently – “might be the death of us all”. Gradually, reading and writing about the climate crisis began once again to feel both urgent and surprisingly exhilarating. Unlike with Covid, writers have had time to think about this crisis, and there is a huge swell of writing trying to imagine and tell stories in fundamentally new ways.

The cover of essay collection Where We Swim, featuring aerial photograph of people entering sea, and a portrait of author Ingrid Horrocks

(Photo: Ebony Lamb)

As a reader, I find I’m drawn in two different directions in following these imaginings. One draw is to books about the daily experience of being alive in this eerie moment in the world’s history. The books I would place in this first strand are basically realist, and they are often domestic. But in them the domestic has been broken open to allow the winds and fires and species loss of the global climate to rush through. The second draw is to all the weird stuff being written at the moment, about animals and plants and water, in which non-human actors are brought to the centre of narrative, helping to show that humans are not the only species in town. 

My 2020 go-to book for what I think of as the more quotidian, realist end of things was Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020). It is a short novel made up of scenes like this one, as the narrator Lizzie drives home at the end of the day, and listens to a podcast in that short interlude between work and family: 

I listen to Hell and High Water on the way home. This one is about Deep Time. The geologist being interviewed speaks quickly, sweeping through millions and millions of years in a moment. The Age of Birds has passed, he says. Also of Reptiles. Also of Flowering Plants. Holocene was the name of our age. Holocene, which meant “now.”

In another chapter, she has a birthday party where she gets very drunk and talks to everyone, “Because the fact that there are six thousand miles of New York sewers and all of them lie well below sea level has become my go-to conversational gambit.” She also says, “Environmentalists are so dreary.” And she wonders how to live with all this, and also about how to hold her marriage together.   

But from it all, some feeling of structure emerges, along with arrangement and meaning-making. There is a mind constantly making connections between the intimate and the global, the emotional and the factual, the present and the future. The book ends, and this shouldn’t give too much away, with the narrator in bed with her husband, and the line, “The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.” If a novel like Weather is a call to action, it is also a call of consolation sung across an abyss. It is about kinship. There are other people, all over the globe, feeling this way. And here are some of the ways all this mess we encounter everyday can be emotionally mapped. As a reader, a novel like this helps me better see my own life, as well as the world beyond it. As a writer it helps me better understand, too, how to map my own places and complex structures of feeling.

A while back, people talked about something called climate change fiction, citing novels like T. Coraghessan Boyle’s apocalyptic A Friend of the Earth (2000), in which it rains all the time and there isn’t much of society left. There are also good New Zealand cli-fi novels. But it has become almost a truism to say that all fiction – all writing – is climate writing now. It would seem odd to call a work like Weather cli-fi and I’m not really interested in producing a work of climate writing. It is more that the climate crisis seeps into almost everything now – that cicada thrum of environmental shift. 

And then, once I was really reading again, there was the immense draw, pleasure, and challenge of the weird stuff. It seems to me writing has got really weird lately, and wonderfully so. I’m loving it. It turns out that simply telling stories of the human subject striving to realise themselves alone in the world – the bildungsroman or coming-of-age or the family saga – has not served any of us especially well. Stories that only have human protagonists have helped us forget a lot of important stuff. This new writing seems to ask, what if we told stories radically differently? How would that work?

Part of what I respond to in my colleague Laura Jean McKay’s book The Animals in that Country (2020), which I read on my first night away after lockdown, and which just picked up Australia’s largest literary award, is the way it tilts the world we think we know. It is a vision of an Australia in which humans can suddenly understand animals, evoking a mad, cacophonous, scary and often funny world. And the genius is it could, in fact, be a version of precisely the world we inhabit every day. Maybe that is what animals are saying. 

It reminded me of the comparable experience of uncanny tilt in the final sequence of Pip Adam’s The New Animals (2017). This comes when one of Adam’s seemingly more nondescript characters takes over the story and swims out into the harbour, literally becoming mermaid or sea mammal, equivalent to an octopus or a whale. Or, from the opposite direction, there was the tilt from encountering Australian novelist Lucy Treloar’s wolfdog, Girl, who in Treloar’s futuristic novel Wolfe Island (2019) is as important a central character as the humans she hangs out with. Even the terms, human-animal and non-human-animal, which I found jargony and awkward when I first heard them, I now sort of love. There is a shift in vision required every time I say or write them. 

I also keep being struck by how many books are doing things like exploring what would happen if the lives of trees dictated story structure, as in Sophie Cunningham’s City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death, and the Need for a Forest (2019), or if the lives of trees dictated story time, as in Richard Powers’s epic novel, The Overstory (2019). The Overstory opens with a long section structured by the lifespan of a chestnut tree and suddenly narrative time works differently, changing what seems important. These books helped me see how I could let water shape a story. 

I keep calling these “new” approaches to telling stories, but I know they are often actually related to Indigenous, living approaches to an animate, interconnected natural world. I think here of writing like the lyrical and challenging essays The Red Fleck in her Hair by Ruby Solly and Wai Māori by Tina Ngata. Ngata’s essay begins, “When I speak to wai I speak to myself.” One of my most startling reading experiences in this last year has been with the queer love story between a woman and a talking tree told by Mununjali Yugambeh writer Ellen van Neerven in Heat and Light. I don’t know how it even works as fiction, but it does.

Each time I start reading any of this writing I have no idea, really, where I will end up. In the process, the hierarchies and structures we live so much of our lives by, can seem to dissolve. 

So I did keep going with the book I was trying to finish. Lots of this reading is submerged in Where We Swim – certainly the sense of excitement in how contemporary writing is shifting how we can tell stories. As I write in the book’s opening chapter, it initially started as a direct kind of environmental writing project, where I wanted to swim my way from Wellington to Auckland as a way of thinking and talking about the degraded state of our rivers here in Aotearoa. I also wanted to remember the pleasure of swimming itself, and why it might matter if waters became “unswimmable.” But quickly I felt constricted by setting off along the old tropes of the solitary adventurer, out there reporting on the state of the crisis. I wanted, instead, to write how this connected to daily lives. I also wanted to make it stranger than that, I wanted to explore how a life could be haunted by waters and animals, tendrils of connections, embodied fears and joys. I wanted to evoke how a life could be both lived here, and intimately connected with elsewhere.  

What emerged the other side of lockdown, after being abandoned for a time, was a non-fiction book that seeks to create a complex web of connections, local and global, human and non-human. There is the narrator (me) worrying away about sea-level rise while walking to the beach with her kids. There is a pool in the desert in Arizona and a pool in a sectioned-off part of the Amazon river. There is the first swim of Level 3. There are also animals throughout, including whales, manatee, cows, and an elk. In many ways these were the hardest to write. I kept struggling to see and write the ways in which each of these creatures had their own ongoing narrative, quite separate from my own. Sometimes it came down to something as simple as verb choices and pronouns to shift how a passage worked. I still have a lot to learn. And of course, always, throughout the book there is the ocean, 70% of the world’s surface. The ocean is the main subject here, I write at one point. Humanity is just passing through. 

There has to be more to reading and writing the climate crisis than constant, to-the-moment, present-tense accounts of ice melts and species loss, fires and floods. At my most hopeful, I think that if we are to play the long game, it will help if we can pause and try to imagine this world we share anew. It feels as though we may be beginning to enter that place with Covid, too. Perhaps it is no longer that everything has to be directly about Covid, but that the Covid world is now part of everything we do.

Where We Swim, by Ingrid Horrocks (Victoria University Press, $35) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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